One of the best questions I ever asked myself was, “What causes religion in the first place?” The earliest signs of religious activity (and presumably thought) go back at least 40,000 years. Advances in technology over the ages have been consistently followed by ‘advances’ in religious thought and practice. For me, the empirically obvious answer to my question, “why religion,” is this: Religion evolves as a cultural framework to counterbalance cultural stresses which follow in the wake of technological advances.
Examples of this are found in the momentous change that occurred in religious paradigms as the iron age replaced the stone and bronze age, e.g., the birth of Judaism (followed by Christianity and Islam), Buddhism, Zoroaster, Hinduism, Taoism. It is hard to realize now, but iron’s impact on societies back then was as profound as the industrial revolution’s impact was in recent times.
Ideally, religion is a way for people to cope with life’s changing circumstances. Alas, religion often gets caught up in the change and loses sight of its founding fundamentals. A Taoist world-view can be a ‘way’ of last resort to those for whom mainstream religions cease being a helpful way to cope.
Reunite and Return
It is easier to understand how religion (in general) and Taoist thought (in particular) are supposed to work by considering the core problem. The idea that humanity is excluded from an ‘Eden’, of one sort or another, is common among all religions. Indeed, the biblical story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden shares common ground with the Taoist view. Their problem began when desire drove them to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they became aware of their nakedness. From there, however, Taoist views and most religions part company, especially in regards of what to do. Interestingly, the word religion (i.e., Latin for re-unite) itself conveys the universal question: How to re-unite with pre-knowledge innocence and return to ‘Eden’.
Taoist thought is a way to return to this ‘original self’ as much as practicable. Taoists view words, names, and knowledge of good and evil (without the devil’s role of course), as the principle reason we discern a schism between Nature and ourselves. Civilization tames people by instilling in them cultural ‘norms’ from infancy onward. And let’s face it, taming people (civilizing us) is the only way to get large populations settled into more or less peaceful co-existence. This comes at a price; we actually think that we know, willfully innovate, and so lose a proper sense of awe. I must confess, the older I get, the more I feel like I’m living in a zoo observing (and being one among) the flora and fauna. I say zoo because civilization has so extensively circumscribed human behavior. Fortunately, Taoist thought helps me return. Returning to one’s roots, as the Tao Te Ching puts it.
Overview of Taoist Thought
Reading the Tao Te Ching is perhaps the best, if not the only, way to open that door. Hopefully, this site’s many posts will be helpful as well. Just briefly though, I’ll review some of the main points below…
Tao means way in Chinese. Anything said beyond that is tentative, for as the opening verse of the Tao Te Ching states: “The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way. The name that can be named is not the constant name.” So, consider this overview with that in mind:
We react to life according to how we perceive it. If a perception is out of touch with natural reality, we react in unbalanced ways that waste time, energy, and bring about unnecessary chaos and suffering. Taoist thought seeks to solve this problem at its perceptual source. As the Tao Te Ching puts it: “Woe to him who willfully innovates while ignorant of the constant…”
Taoist thought offers us a way to see through the chaos of life, and realize within ourselves this “constant.” How does Taoist thought do this?
Taoist thought rests on the view that reality is complementary; nature is inherently cooperative—not competitive. The Chinese black and white Yin-Yang circle symbolizes this balancing principle. Consider the following excerpts from the Tao Te Ching which illustrate this circular relationship.
“Thus Something and Nothing produce each other.”
“It is on disaster that good fortune perches; It is beneath good fortune that disaster crouches.”
Knowing this circular relationship moderates extremes and allows us to look deeper. As another verse, referring to opposites, states: “These two are the same, but diverge in name as they issue forth. Being the same they are called mysteries, mystery upon mystery—the gateway of the manifold secrets.”
Easing the distinction between opposites helps us sense a deeper reality, as this excerpt shows: “…Untangle the knots; soften the glare; settle the dust. This is known as mysterious sameness.”
Or, even more challenging to our idealized view of life: “The whole world recognizes the beautiful as the beautiful, yet this is only the ugly; the whole world recognizes the good as the good, yet this is only the bad.”
There are a few verses in the Tao Te Ching which attempt to describe the “constant way” more directly. Here are some excerpts:
“As a thing the way is shadowy, indistinct…”
“There is a thing, confusedly formed, born before heaven and earth. Silent and void. It stands alone and does not change…”
“Turning back is how the way moves; weakness is the means the way employs.”
“The way is empty, yet use will not drain it. Deep, it is like the ancestor of the myriad creatures.”
“Darkly visible, it only seems as if it were there. I know not whose son it is. It images the forefather of God.”
If you find this approach promising, examine this site thoroughly for practical ways to implement the principles set forth here.